The Day El Cap Rained 27 Tons of Hell in Yosemite—The Route Fell Off Practically Right Below Their Feet
It was a close call on the Big Stone when the route they were climbing started falling apart, and then most of the route did collapse.
September 1996, Southeast Face of El Capitan, afternoon. Three pitches up Lost in America (VI 5.10a A4-)—a shield of steep golden stone, expanding flakes, and loose diorite—I hung from a sling belay and listened to the gentle tink-tink-tink of Chris McNamara pounding Bird Beaks into a seam above.
Chris heard the next noise first, right before Erica Kalve or I did. It was a cracking, ripping sound, he said, “like the world’s largest BASE jumper tearing the air apart.”
An enormous block plummeted from above, passing by a hundred feet to our right. Pebbles and dirt followed it like a comet tail. It roared as it fell, and I watched it explode like a bomb into the talus at the base. Like the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, 6.9 in magnitude and centered only 90 miles south of my home in Marin County, the falling rock came out of nowhere—and when it passed there was silence, leaving me in disbelief.
Chris had stopped pounding in a Beak, and Erica paused as she jugged from the last anchor toward my stance some 500 feet up. We all sat stunned as dust from the ground blew up toward us. We smelled powdered granite. When the air cleared, we saw a bus-sized crater below, from which the block had thrown out chunks. A white scar showed where the rocks had bounded down the hillside.
Erica, a Marin Search and Rescue volunteer who had never been more than a pitch off the ground before, had the closest look at the falling block, and estimated that it weighed about 15 tons. It was the size of two elephants.
Then only 18, the big-wall whiz kid “Chris Mac” had already spent 100 days on El Cap, and had never seen anything like the rockfall. He says, “I remember thinking it was the most insane, sickest thing I ever saw. If anyone was on the Zodiac talus” —to climber’s right of our line—“or within 100 feet of where it landed, they would’ve been killed.”
Deciding the rockfall was behind us, we continued climbing, getting four pitches up. However, in the morning, over a breakfast of canned fruit and bagels, we changed our minds, retreating due to our rattled nerves and slow pace. Chris and I lowered Erica 600 feet, watching as she grew smaller and smaller and spun in space, reaching the ground with just 30 feet of rope to spare.
Back then, none of us had any idea how frequent rockfall was in the park, nor how often we put ourselves in harm’s way by unknowingly entering active rockfall zones. Today, the National Park Service (NPS) provides up-to-date info online, showing documented rockfalls, the NPS responses to these events, and what to do in case of a rockfall.
Greg Stock, the park geologist, has studied Yosemite year-round since 2005. He believes nearly 60 rockfalls have occurred on El Cap’s Southeast Face over the past four decades. For the park as a whole, he says, the frequency is “once every five days, from small to large, equating to 73 rockfalls a year.” Earthquakes, storms, and the freeze-thaw cycle all contribute more to rockfall than climbers. “With small flakes, sure, a piton could loosen them, but that’s not enough to dislodge large features,” Stock says. “The stress of heating during the day and cooling at night is way bigger.”
Stock monitors active areas with high-resolution cameras, laser mapping, and exposure dating of fallen rocks, all in the hopes of predicting the next rockfall. He believes one of the most active areas is Middle Brother, and that more rockfalls have occurred on El Cap than are recorded—most occur in winter, when the park is quiet. Stock had his own near-miss on El Cap, in December 2019, at the base of Shortest Straw, a handful of routes to climber’s right of Lost in America. He and his team were performing a radar experiment “when I heard a cracking, sliding sound and saw a giant rock hurtling down to us,” he says. “It sounded like a fighter jet.”
Everyone ran for cover as a Sprinter-sized block fell from one route over, off the last pitch of Zodiac. It struck 30 feet away, sending shrapnel outward; one chunk ricocheted off Stock’s helmet, knocking his neck hard to one side. Luckily, all were unhurt.
“We grabbed our stuff and blasted out of there,” he says. Stock stresses that his helmet saved his life, and recommends wearing one when entering any rockfall zone, including the base of El Cap. “A rock the size of a golf ball can be fatal,” he says. “It’s hard to rationalize the dangers associated with climbing in active areas.”
In September 2017, a weeklong series of rockfalls occurred on the Waterfall Route (VI 5.10 A4) between Zodiac and the East Buttress. Ryan Sheridan, Pete Zabrok, and Patrick Mcredmond were bivying on the Waterfall Route, hanging in their portaledges at Camp 1 (see photo at left), when a storm hit. All night, gravel and dirt—the cement holding flakes to the wall above them—mixed with rainwater and cascaded over them. Sheridan and Mcredmond’s ledge, filling with so much water that Sheridan had to stab holes in the fly to drain it, hung next to a 15-foot dagger of granite, which echoed like a gong when touched. A belay bolt stuck out from the flake, but they didn’t dare use it. “We tossed rocks behind the flake all night and heard them echoing down the wall. We knew we were on the worst rock we would ever climb,” Sheridan says. “Nothing was attached, and the rock was like the crust on stale bread.” The next day, from an anchor above, he watched the flake fall off.
Gravel and chunks fell continually throughout the next day and night, then larger sections of the wall disintegrated below them. One plate that fell contained the anchor bolts they had used the day before. Their escape route removed, the climbers were forced upward. Over the next week, cracks in the face crept toward the three, creating subsequent rockfalls.
“I would die or not, but the only thing to do was to do it,” Sheridan told me this year. “We [could] either go up or call for a rescue … and we did not want to endanger any other people.” The cracks became wider, sometimes too wide for cams. “We couldn’t aid-climb, so we free-climbed. Once I had a 100-foot runout,” says Sheridan. “You could sling loose flakes, but if you fell, you would rip them off.”
As the climbers topped out, on September 28, they watched a massive section—which Stock later measured at 10,250 cubic meters of rock (one cubic meter is the size of a washing machine), weighing 27,200 tons—of the route peel away below. The rockfall measured 425 feet tall, 115 feet wide, and 15 feet thick, resulting in a dust plume that poured up-valley. Zabrok, filming, gasped at the time, “I felt the ground vibrating underneath me. Holy crap, this could’ve killed people on the road.”
That week’s rockfall did in fact kill a visiting British climber, Andrew Foster, who heroically dove onto his wife, Lucy, to protect her. The two were walking along the base of El Cap during the early days of the rockfall events when they were hit. The final major rockfall sent shrapnel across the road, one piece breaking through a car skylight to strike the driver’s head, causing him to hit a boulder on Southside Drive.
The area that released had begun shedding in 2010, Stock says, taking seven years to culminate in the final event. The area remains active today.
In 1997, Chris Mac and I attempted Atlantic Ocean Wall (VI 5.9 A4), retreating in a storm. Low on the route, Chris nailed up a flake that, as he said before getting past it, “keeps expanding.” It peeled away on a later team, forcing descent. The following season, Aaron Martin and I completed Lost in America. When we returned to the ground, I saw a soloist lever off a body-sized flake from near the top of Reticent Wall, an A5 on the Southeast Face, sending it flying. In 2009, a section of rock 40 feet in diameter fell from close to the top of El Cap, also near Lost in America.
You’ve heard it a million times, but wear a helmet.
Chris Van Leuven resides near Yosemite Valley. Twice last season, he dropped his helmet off long routes—when taking it on and off mid-route. He’s since learned to keep it strapped to his head.
From Summer 2021